Wikileaks and the Long Haul

Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about Wikileaks.

Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name, to engage in what Pierre Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy”*, the democracy of citizens distrusting rather than legitimizing the actions of the state. Wikileaks plainly improves those abilities.

On the other hand, human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities. (If Aaron Bady’s analysis is correct, it is the damage and not the oversight that Wikileaks is designed to create.*)

And so we have a tension between two requirements for democratic statecraft, one that can’t be resolved, but can be brought to an acceptable equilibrium. Indeed, like the virtues of equality vs. liberty, or popular will vs. fundamental rights, it has to be brought into such an equilibrium for democratic statecraft not to be wrecked either by too much secrecy or too much transparency.

As Tom Slee puts it, “Your answer to ‘what data should the government make public?’ depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.”* My personal view is that there is too much secrecy in the current system, and that a corrective towards transparency is a good idea. I don’t, however, believe in total transparency, and even more importantly, I don’t think that independent actors who are subject to no checks or balances is a good idea in the long haul.

If the long haul were all there was, Wikileaks would be an obviously bad thing. The practical history of politics, however, suggests that the periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books*, a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

This intellectual and political victory didn’t, however, mean that the printing press was then free of all constraints. Over time, a set of legal limitations around printing rose up, including restrictions on libel, the publication of trade secrets, and sedition. I don’t agree with all of these laws, but they were at least produced by some legal process.

Unlike the United States’ current pursuit of Wikileaks.*

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

The Unites States is — or should be — subject to the rule of law, which makes the extra-judicial pursuit of Wikileaks especially nauseating. (Calls for Julian’s assassination are even more nauseating.) It may be that what Julian has done is a crime. (I know him casually, but not well enough to vouch for his motivations, nor am I a lawyer.) In that case, the right answer is to bring the case to a trial.

In the US, however, the government has a “heavy burden”, in the words of the Supreme Court, for engaging in prior restraint of even secret documents, an established principle since New York Times Co. vs. The United States*, when the Times published the Pentagon Papers. If we want a different answer for Wikileaks, we need a different legal framework first.

Though I don’t like Senator Joseph Lieberman’s proposed SHIELD law (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination*), I do like the fact that it is a law, and not an extra-legal avenue (of which Senator Lieberman is also guilty.*) I also like the fact that the SHIELD Law makes it clear what’s at stake: the law proposes new restraints on publishers, and would apply to the New York Times and The Guardian as it well as to Wikileaks. (As Matthew Ingram points out, “Like it or not, Wikileaks is a media entity.”*) SHIELD amounts to an attempt to reverse parts of New York Times Co. vs. The United States.

I don’t think such a law should pass. I think the current laws, which criminalize the leaking of secrets but not the publishing of leaks, strike the right balance. However, as a citizen of a democracy, I’m willing to be voted down, and I’m willing to see other democratically proposed restrictions on Wikileaks put in place. It may even be that whatever checks and balances do get put in place by the democratic process make anything like Wikileaks impossible to sustain in the future.

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

228 Responses to “Wikileaks and the Long Haul”

  1. Why the U.S. Shouldn’t Prosecute Assange–For the U.S.’s Sake, Not His « Marvin Ammori & Says:

    […] validating that perception will ripple across our international relations. As Clay Shirky notes, autocrats will certainly use our actions to justify political […]

  2. Catching up: L’Assange est sur la branche « Cubik's Rube Says:

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  3. Shirky and Bady: 2010′s best Wikileaks coverage « John Bracken Says:

    […] Shirky’s Wikileaks and the Long Haul. “I know he’s trotted out lots of times, but he’s the writer I rely on to both push […]

  4. Jim Grisanzio Says:

    Conflicted? Why? And why the need to come down on both sides of this story? Wikileaks is not difficult to understand. It is actually *very* easy. What they are doing is essentially what journalists do. The publication mechanism may be different but the process is really the same. They are, in fact, reporters. If you are conflicted about Wikileaks than you are conflicted about the Pentagon Papers — and every other leak that has taken place along the way. Also, Wikileaks is not even the story here at all. The story is the actions of the govt outlined in the cables, what the govt is doing now to stop the publication of the documents, why the govt is ignoring the other media outlets publishing the content, and why the press and their supporters are supporting government secrecy.

  5. TallNeil Says:

    Good article!, and I think there are two other issues :
    1-“human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness.” – I am not sure if this is fundamentally true, and is also an unrealistic extreme example. The difference between “pure transparency” and what goverenments and even regular citizens do now is so vast, that if we had to choose between trying to strive for greater transparentcy or more control, I choose transparency. If in 100 years we get to the point where basically all goverenment activity is fully transperent and based on a collective democratic process, and everyone in the world is seen as ‘weak’ well that is fine…we are all weak if we can’t stand behind the honestly of what we are saying or doing.
    2- Also as for the companies like Visa and Apple and PayPal blocking them: well if the credit card companies have a policy that they don’t support organizations that are suspected of illegal activities (Wikileaks), then why are they not canceling the accounts of the US government? They must believe the information leaked is real (otherwise not illegal to leak) and therefor there is equal evidence that the government is also breaking the law. Why don’t they cut both groups off?
    Ex: if Visa found out a stolen credit card was being used to buy stolen goods…. wouldn’t they try to block both the seller and the buyer?
    Thanks for posting

  6. On Wikileaks | beyond the times Says:

    […] closing, in place of any master synthesis or confident opinion, I’ll simply link to Clay Shirky’s post on the topic, which I think lays out the issues […]

  7. Lecciones de Wikileaks: la diferencia entre la prensa y los medios « IT ruminations Says:

    […] 2 de diciembre de 2010) Episodio 75 de Rebooting The News (Jay Rosen y Dave Winer, 6 de diciembre) Wikileaks and the long haul (Clay Shirky, 6 de diciembre de 2010) Freedomleaks (Doc Searls, 9 de diciembre de 2010) […]

  8. Tran Sendit Says:

    Idealsim and reality are often conflated in discussions these days. I am disappointed to see Mr. Shirky, whose ideas I respect ( and is a source in my dissertation) to be guilty of it. Wikileaks does not change THE game. It changes this game. Government will be government, and secrets are part of it. Wikileaks created a doorway that secrets passed through. The door will not stay open. These are Temporary Autonomous Zones (Bey- Wilson) that are not defensible positions. Wikileaks got a temporary jump up that is important because of this moment. There is a war and a tissue of lies that it is based on. The United States is doing the same thing in foreign policy that the financial industry did with real estate. Wikileaks did good work in Kenya and other places before this imbroglio. This is good too because the emperor has no clothes

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  10. Wikiwacking « Breezeblog Says:

    […] across that offer food for thought. Veteran Internet commentator Clay Shirky, in  piece called Wikileaks and the long haul, argues that the hounding of Wikileaks poses a very real threat to the freedom of the internet […]

  11. Wikileaks mexeu com o sistema | A Ficha Caiu Says:

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  13. Wikileaks and ‘Economies of Repression’ | Think Tank West Says:

    […] Like many who generally favor greater transparency, I have serious reservations about the way Wikileaks operates. While it is clearly false to claim, as some have, that the site is dumping classified material online “indiscriminately,” I have serious doubts that the news value of much of the released material outweighs the potential security risks or the chilling effect on diplomacy. Nor do I have much sympathy with what appears to be Julian Assange’s “heighten the contradictions” strategy of forcing governments to clamp down on internal information sharing. […]

  14. Kvick Tänkare | Travels with Shiloh Says:

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  16. “the world’s coolest smartest people, it’s amazing!” « Worte, Zeichen, Bilder Says:

    […] Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change.//Clay Shirky […]

  17. Viveka Weiley Says:

    RLinton writes:

    “Had he shown some intestinal fortitude and started with a country like China or Russia”

    Wikileaks started out by uncovering murder and corruption at the very top levels in Somalia and Kenya, before they ever started uncovering lies about Guantanamo Bay. They’ve published leaks about nuclear accidents in Iran, corruption in the Swiss Banks in the Cayman Islands. They’ve pissed off a lot of very powerful and important people. And they’ve announced that Russia is next.

    It’s only citizens of the US who are reacting to the exposure of their own government’s crimes by calling for his murder.

    And just on that, for a moment.

    Ken Arromdee says: “We’d invade, of course […] Enemy soldiers (or soldier-like attackers) don’t get the benefits of our democracy; they can’t vote that we don’t kill them and they certainly can’t expect us to follow the laws of their home country in going after them.”

    You can invade Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, sure. Because those are broken countries with illegitimate governments. You’re going to invade Sweden, seriously? You do know that when you invade a country (or in this case a bloc; you’d have just invaded Europe), they stop trading with you, right? You do realise that they stop using your dollar as their reserve currency, thereby destroying your debt-ridden economy overnight?

    I’m an Australian, in Australia. Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. If he were home in Australia he would be a free man, because our government cannot find any Australian law that he has broken. Our politicians are very apologetic about that, but there it is. We don’t have anything like the free speech protections you supposedly enjoy in the US, but I have to remind you that all Assange has done is speak. Yes, it’s dangerous and damaging speech. Suck it up.

    Because if people in the US seriously think that democratic countries are going to be OK with assassins entering our country, in contravention of our laws, to murder one of our citizens, then you’re stark raving mad.

  18. Viveka Weiley Says:

    Quoth S: “We should be hearing from the U.S. State Department about their immediate plans to hire great minds from Google and other tech companies to create the world’s most secure communication system”

    You have it already; it’s called Top Secret, Codeword Protected. These cables were leaked because nothing in them was considered Top Secret, and after 9/11 Colin Powell was pressured into making diplomatic material up to Secret level very widely available.

    The secrets in these cables were open secrets. Millions of people knew these secrets. Politicians knew, anyone involved in diplomacy or the conduct of the Wars knew, the media knew. The scandal is that the tame corporate media was glossing over these open secrets, minimising them, hiding them from the wider public. Because if the wider public knows that their taxpayer dollars are paying for underage sex slaves for stoned Afghan police (as the cables reveal that they are), they might want some heads to roll.

  19. Overvåkningssamfunnet truer | Digital Says:

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  26. Mate Says:

    if you don’t like the message don’t attack the messenger.
    Gee politicians and Government officials accountable for their words and deeds , what next?
    Personally i would rather be informed than ignorant or misinformed.

  27. clay shirky’s response to Wikileaks « Stringer Says:

    […] to Wikileaks December 11, 2010 — cate3221 it should be obvious by now that i like Clay Shirky. i like the way his mind works. he has written recently on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Basically, […]

  28. Alex Says:

    Shirky seems to confuse leaking and publishing. WikiLeaks – as the name implies – is in the business of leaking documents it obtained from an informer. There is nothing wrong with transparency and with holding the government accountable, However, while a serious newspaper is most likely to vet material it publishes in order not to endanger the country and to avoid collateral damage, WikiLeaks and Assange give no such assurance; they just publish the raw material.
    Then there is the rape charge. It is easy to assume that it is a set up – and maybe it is. However, were I accused of two rapes I would be in prison awaiting trial, whether or not I was guilty. Is the fact that Assnage is trying to embarrass the US government reason enough to give him the kid glove treatment? i don’t think so.

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